Friday, September 10, 2004

Two hot topics

1. Much excitement in the science department this week as NASA's Genesis probe crashed in Utah just as we were closing the section. We had to pull out an item at the last minute to create the room for something on the probe. A bit of high-speed reportage then followed...

An unflying saucer
Sep 9th 2004
From The Economist print edition
Genesis crashed. But can it be brought back to life?

THE Genesis capsule pictured above was supposed to have been returned to Earth by Hollywood stunt pilots. But the capsule, launched by America's space agency, NASA, suffered a distinctly unheroic fate when it plummeted to the ground in the Utah desert on September 8th. Although the proposal to catch it in mid-air was perfectly feasible, a fault with the probe's parachute system meant that the waiting helicopter pilots stood no chance of making the recovery... (full article here requires subscription)

2. The second piece I wrote this week was about radiation damage to the human germ line. It is a report I picked up from a conference in London on leukemia. Interesting and slightly depressing stuff.

Testing times
Sep 9th 2004
From The Economist print edition

There is now evidence that radiation damage can be passed down the generations

DURING the 1950s, one of the least inviting holiday destinations on the planet would have been Semipalatinsk, in Kazakhstan. It is a mere 150km (about 100 miles) from the Soviet Union's main atomic-bomb testing site and it was subjected to the fallout from 118 tests over 13 years. From this and other grim and inadvertent experiments, it is clear that nuclear radiation is a powerful cause of mutations in human DNA in the ordinary cells (those that are not concerned with reproduction) of the body. Such mutations can, in turn, cause cancers. But evidence supporting another oft-voiced fear—that radiation-induced mutations might affect human reproductive (or “germ-line”) cells—is weak and surprisingly controversial. (full article here requires subscription)